I remember getting my first WAP phone when I was still Editor of Personal Computer World magazine. The hype surrounding the launch of WAP was massive and I was expecting an amazing experience when I connected for the first time. Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed, and WAP proved to be slow, poorly implemented and often expensive. One of the things that annoyed me most about WAP, was that I was well aware that the Japanese were enjoying the benefits of i-mode.
You see, all the way back in 1999, Japanese network operator NTT DoCoMo had launched its i-mode service. This was a simple packet-based data service that allowed users to perform all kinds of tasks, and access all kinds of services via their mobile phones. Not only was i-mode content rich, it was also much faster and far more intuitive than WAP. With this in mind I gave up on WAP and waited for i-mode to appear in the UK – I waited and waited and waited, but to no avail.
Now, six years after NTT DoCoMo launched its i-mode service in Japan, us Brits are finally getting a taste of what our friends in Japan have been raving about. Yes, a UK network operator has finally stepped up to the plate and launched an i-mode service, and that operator is O2.
Launching i-mode was always going to be a tricky proposition in the UK, after all WAP was hardly welcomed with open arms. But O2 seems to have done everything right with this launch – handsets were available from day one, there was loads of content on offer at launch and the pricing structure has been made clear and simple. I don’t know how long O2 spent on planning the rollout of i-mode or how many people were involved, but I can only imagine that the man hours were significant.
Although the title of this review is the NEC N411i, what I’m really looking at is the i-mode service as experienced on said phone. NEC is one of the handset launch partners for i-mode along with Samsung, although NEC managed to get two phones to market for launch. The N411i is the high-end handset in the NEC line up, despite the fact that the cheaper and less featured N343i will probably outsell it, due to its iPod looks.
So, before I get into the specifics about the phone, I’ll cover i-mode itself. Let me start by saying that i-mode is great – it works brilliantly, has tonnes of useful content already and is totally affordable. One of the best things that O2 has done with i-mode is put a fixed pricing structure into place – this means that whether you’re a pre-pay customer or on a contract, you’ll be paying exactly the same amount for your i-mode services.
Talking of cost, there are two costs to take into account for i-mode – the data cost and the subscription cost. As is the case with all mobile Internet services, you need to pay for the amount of data you use – of course you can purchase packages that suit your usage model, so if you think you’ll be using a lot of data you can pay a monthly fee that reduces the cost per megabyte significantly. But there are also subscription costs and this is where things can start to add up.
First off let me congratulate O2 for insisting that every content provider must offer a certain amount of free content. This means that you can get an idea of what subscribing will provide you before having to put any money down. Another good move is capping the subscription cost at a maximum of £3 per month – although it’s worth remembering that a great many services have a far lower subscription cost. If you’re worried about subscribing to services by mistake and ending up with a huge bill, don’t – in order to subscribe to a service you have to confirm three times before the subscription is activated, and if you still click yes by “mistake” at that point, you deserve to end up with a big bill.
The breadth of content available is quite staggering. Check out the lifestyle section and you’ll find familiar magazine names like Heat, Glamour and Evo. While for those desperate enough to need to look at pictures of naked bimbos on a tiny mobile phone screen, there’s also Zoo, Nuts and FHM – to quote FHM Mobile’s front page headline “This month BUMS!”, need I say more?
But it’s not all puerile content for teenagers, there are some truly excellent services as well. For me it’s worth having i-mode just to have streetmap.co.uk in my pocket wherever I go. For a bargain price of only 25p per month, you can look up any street or postcode and have the map sent directly to your phone, just like when you use the site on your computer. This is a huge help for me, since I’m forever heading off to meetings and forgetting to print out a map before I leave. Another very useful feature is the BAA live flight information, something that I made real use of when I had to collect my wife from the airport last week. O2 has assured me that there will be a similar service for train times, but it hasn’t gone live yet.
Of course there are also news services, sports channels, TV gossip services and music and video download services available. Put simply, there really is something there for everyone. One of the most impressive aspects of i-mode is the navigation system – not only is the i-mode button and standard four-way navigator intuitive and easy to use, but every i-mode handset has to employ the same navigation method. This means that if you change your handset, you don’t have to learn how to navigate i-mode all over again.
Another great i-mode feature is page caching. This means that when you jump back pages, the transition is instantaneous, since that page will have been cached locally, so there’s no need to download it again. This is particularly useful when you’re moving around a map in streetmap.co.uk, since the various areas will be cached. However, I’d like to see more pages cached, since the caching is very limited – to be honest I’d like to be able to reserve an amount of phone memory for caching, and have all pages cached until that area was full.
An i-mode phone is also equipped with push email, just like a BlackBerry. So, if you absolutely have to get your email wherever you are, you can just have it all forwarded to your i-mode phone, although you’re obviously going to have to pay for all the data that you receive. The beauty of the push email is that you just forward your email to the phone when you need it, that way you’re not constantly bombarded with email all day. My advice would be to never give out the actual email address of your phone, that way you can avoid spam while maintaining a useful mobile email option when necessary.
The good news is that all the i-mode content services are free until the end of the year – well that’s not entirely true, you’re allowed to subscribe to up to 10 content providers for free until the end of the year. i-mode email is also free until the end of March 2006.
But good as it is, i-mode isn’t perfect. Take streetmap.co.uk for example, probably my favourite i-mode service. Now, to use StreetMap you need to navigate to the StreetMap site listed under the Travel section, then you have to download a Java application in order to use the service, but this is where it gets slightly confusing. Once the Java application has been downloaded, you don’t then go to the StreetMap site under the i-menu to use StreetMap, oh no, now you have to go into your Java menu and launch StreetMap from there. I don’t see why you can’t go to the StreetMap site under the Travel section and have the Java application automatically launched from there if you have it installed – surely that would be the most simple and obvious route for users?
Now that I’ve got i-mode out of the way, what is the N411i actually like?
As handsets go this one is pretty slim and light. I’m not the biggest fan of clamshell phones, but I did warm to the N411i ever so slightly. With dimensions of 93 x 46 x 24mm (LxWxD) and a weight of 95g, this phone can slip pretty unobtrusively into your pocket. The Tri-Band support will mean that you can use it pretty much anywhere in the world, although some handsets are now appearing with Quad-Band support, in case you fancy a jaunt to South America.
The 1.9in TFT screen has a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels. Although this looks very good when viewed in isolation, when I compared it directly to the screen on my Samsung D600 (a full review of which is coming soon), it looks far less impressive. To be fair though, the D600’s resolution of 320 x 240 is stunning and would make pretty much any other phone look bad.
There’s a second display on the outside of the phone – by default this displays battery and signal strength indicators along with a large analogue clock. When someone calls you the external screen will display the number or name of the person calling. Above the external screen is a light that flashes blue when the phone has a signal – a strange feature and one that I found somewhat distracting when the handset was sitting on my desk. Above the light is the lens for the integrated 1.3 megapixel camera, which takes pretty good still images but rather disappointing video. When you start to use the camera you find that the annoying blue signal light also shines bright white when in camera mode.
Connection wise the N411i comes equipped with both Bluetooth and infrared, while a USB cable is also in the box for synchronisation with your PC. There’s also a handsfree kit in the box and NEC has been smarter than most phone manufacturers here – instead of supplying an all in one solution, NEC has supplied the handsfree in two parts, allowing you to plug any headphones into the microphone section. This way you can get the best possible sound quality when listening to music by using your own headphones. That said, with only 25MB of internal memory and no memory card slot, you’re not going to be carrying masses of music around with you anyway.
When not in i-mode mode, the four way navigator on the keypad defaults to Phone Modes when you press up, My Data when you press down, Missed Calls when you press right and Received Calls when you press left. Pressing the centre of the navigator will jump to the shortcut icons on the screen – although these can be configured, the phone will also add shortcut icons depending on the circumstances. For instance, if you receive a message a shortcut icon for that message will appear on your main screen, then pressing the centre of the navigator will take you straight to that message.
The NEC N411i is available free from O2 depending on your contract, while pre-pay customers will need to shell out £99. The latter is pretty good considering that this is one of the first i-mode handsets on the market.
On the whole the NEC N411i is a reasonable enough phone, although it feels a little underpowered and dated by today’s standards. Just sitting it next to my Samsung D600 makes it feel inadequate, and just a generation or so behind the times. The keypad isn’t tactile enough and the buttons are actually set below the surface rather than being raised, making dialling a lot more difficult than it should be. Put simply, this doesn’t feel like the sort of handset that should be launching a service as good as i-mode.
The important thing here is that i-mode is excellent – to quote O2’s marketing campaign, it really is Internet at the touch of a button. As far as I can see there are only two major down sides to i-mode. The first issue is that O2 has a 10 year exclusive window on i-mode services in the UK – now this may seem like good news for O2, but I’m not convinced it’s great news for i-mode. Personally I think that for true mass adoption of i-mode it needs to be available on all the networks, since I just don’t see customers switching networks in order to use i-mode – well, not too many anyway.
The second issue is that of hardware. With only three i-mode handsets currently available, and a fourth due any day, there isn’t a huge amount of choice. The problem here is that mobile phone users love having the latest, coolest, slimmest, smallest, lightest, sexiest phone on the market, and unfortunately none of the current i-mode handsets fulfil those criteria. Take me for example, I have an O2 contract and was due for an upgrade, but despite loving i-mode, I went for the Samsung D600 instead because it’s a far nicer phone than any of the i-mode models – considering that Samsung is one of the two companies producing i-mode phones, it’s a shame that there wasn’t a D series i-mode model at launch.
Hopefully it won’t be long before all the major phone manufacturers are producing i-mode handsets, then I can see more people making use of this great new service. I’m hoping that when upgrade time rolls around again there will be an i-mode phone that satisfies my needs.
There’s no denying that i-mode is great. I love the way it works, the selection of content, the pricing structure, the speed of access and the bundled push email. Unfortunately the NEC N411i just feels a little behind the times in today’s world of super stylish and mega featured mobiles. NEC should be congratulated for getting i-mode handsets out so quickly, but something tells me that we’ll be seeing far better examples in the near future.
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